Bjørn F. Stillion Southard is Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Director of Debate at the University of Georgia.
Blog image: A debate between Oxford University and Norfolk Prison Colony (Massachusetts) in December 1951. Malcolm X participated on the Norfolk team in the late 1940s while imprisoned there. To learn more click here.
What does it mean to be a citizen? During elections, it is not unusual to hear some variation of “Make your voice heard! Vote!” But what do you do if you meet the requirements of age, naturalization, and residence, but are restricted from voting? The population I am describing are people in the United States who have been convicted of a felony. Absent a vote to carry their voice, are these people no longer citizens?
Citizenship must not be reduced to legal qualifications, nor should the ballot serve as a metonym for what it means to be a member of a country. Robert Asen argues for a reorientation toward the question of how we enact citizenship. He offers a discourse a discourse theory of citizenship, which “conceives of citizenship as a mode of public engagement” (191). Asen elaborates, “In drawing attention to citizenship as a process, a discourse theory recognizes the fluid, multimodal, and quotidian enactments of citizenship” within a complex society (191). Citizenship is so much more than one’s legal status or ballot preferences, it is how we communicate with others about matters of public interest.
Asen reorientation is patently clear in Congress, Parliament, local candidate debates, city council meetings, television news programs, even among peers on social media. But there are those who do not have access to what we might conventionally refer to as “the public,” whose discourse might be excluded along with their right to vote. A power of public speaking is to redefine “public” and question who is “speaking.”
I’ve had a few formative experiences in which I saw citizenship powerfully enacted through public speaking, in not-so-public places. One experience occurred at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Oregon. The OSP is an all-male, maximum security prison with over 2,200 incarcerated persons. The racial composition of the club was mostly white, with many Black and Latix members as well. What most people do not know is that there is an active Toastmasters public speaking club within OSP. I was the Director of Forensics (that’s speech and debate not crime scene analysis) at Lewis & Clark College, an hour up the road from the OSP. I usually coached a group of 15-20 students—mostly white, upper-middle class people--and travelled to other universities to compete on weekends.
I received numerous messages from the correctional officer who oversaw the Toastmasters club. He asked if I’d be willing to bring a group of students to OSP to participate in a debate. I said yes.
My college aged students were roundly trounced by the inmates. The OSP debaters were eloquent, prepared, passionate, fair, and just better. Those incarcerated people performed as citizens every bit as well as the twenty-year olds the faced. Most people just don’t see, hear, or think about it. It moved me enough to bring students back again and, when I moved to Georgia, I returned to the OSP to judge at a full debate tournament they hosted inside the prison.
A second formative experience occurred at the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. USP-Atlanta is an all-male, medium security prison. On this occasion I was a part of a panel of outsiders from the University of Georgia and Emory University who would watch a series of persuasive speeches and provide feedback. The speakers delivered remarks about re-entry education policies, a subject I knew nothing about. These citizens—mostly Black and Latinx--had ideas about how things could work better. Many of the people who spoke disclosed that they are serving life sentences. Still, they saw a need to speak up for their beliefs, to build more just and equitable policies, and to make their communities better. I was so moved by the power and polish of the speaking that I asked the correctional officer who organized the event if the speakers would be willing to publish their remarks as part of an essay. They all agreed. I am grateful to call them co-authors.
Citizenship is more than requirements or categories. It’s a way of communicating about the public good. Public speaking--in various places, with a capacious understanding of who speaks—is the stuff of citizenship.
To read more about Bjorn's work go to his page at the University of Georgia here